What Is a Camera Operator? Job Description, Salary, Responsibilities + More

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Camera Operator Job Description: What Does a Camera Operator Do? 

The camera operator is the individual who physically holds and moves/controls the camera throughout principal photography of a production. 

Working under the guidance of the director and DP, it’s the camera operator’s job to capture their visions through the viewfinder. Among many responsibilities, he or she is tasked with leading a crew of camera assistants (first assistant camera, second assistant camera, etc.), mapping out the specifics of the film’s visuals with the DP and ensuring they’re executed properly, assisting with blocking the set, getting cameras in position, framing the shot of each scene, supervising the selection and preparation of various shooting accessories that will best serve the moment (lenses, rigs, cranes, dollies), and being in charge of camera/equipment movement and maintenance. 

Additionally, the camera operator is often the only one on set who sees how everything is being shot in the moment and so it’s on their shoulders to correct and/or readjust something that doesn’t match the director/DP’s vision.

A camera operator is extremely hands-on and active over the course of a shooting day, which can sometimes last more than 10 hours. “Their day usually begins by getting a shot list or schedule from the 1st assistant director, but sometimes the director will communicate directly with the camera operator on how the shot should work,” says Orlando Duguay, a professional Steadicam operator and camera operator based in LA. “If the take is more complicated and involves a Steadicam rig there will be a rehearsal period. Practice can last up to a full day with extensive diagramming if the shot is complicated. The day ends with the camera operator helping the camera team break down and organize equipment.”

Department

Camera

Alternate Title

Cameraman, camerawoman

Crew Hierarchy

Camera operators report to the director and the DP, working especially close with the latter. They’re also in constant communication with the production designer, gaffer, and others on set. They supervise a group of camera assistants who carry out tasks like loading film stock, switching out filters, creating marks for actors, and handling equipment. Sometimes on smaller sets, the DP acts as the camera operator as well. Many large productions have several camera operators.

Camera Operator Salary

The median annual wage for camera operators for television, video, and motion pictures was $54,570 in 2018.

However, the highest 10 percent earned more than $102,470. According to Production Beast, as of 2016, unionized camera operators were guaranteed a minimum rate of $639.81 per day, $2,574.80 a week.

As with most crew positions, the salary is not a fixed one; it depends on experience, the production’s budget, hours worked, and whether you’re a freelancer or in a union. Camera operators are represented by IATSE Local 600, which provides its members with a rate card and sets standard minimum rates for various types of productions. Those who freelance set their own rates. 

How to Become a Camera Operator

Many camera operators get their start either as PAs or lower in the ranks of the camera department; they tend to climb the ladder as film loaders, camera trainees, 2nd assistant camera, and 1st assistant camera before landing the top job. As a PA, you have easy access to the camera crews and can observe on a daily basis how the job is done, not to mention you get a good handle on the cameras, specific lenses, rigs, cranes, dollies, etc. It’s not uncommon for camera operators to work up to six days a week, especially on bigger productions. The natural advancement for a great, reliable, experienced camera operator is becoming a DP.

Camera Operator Required Experience + Skills

In order to be a successful camera operator, it’s crucial to have proficiency and deep knowledge when it comes to digital and film cameras, camera techniques, lenses, specific accessories and equipment, lighting, and color theory. He or she must also have an eye for detail, intuition, and creativity, and an ability to think on their feet, be collaborative, communicate with others (actors, especially!), and work well under extreme pressure. An undergraduate and/or graduate degree in film, film production, and/or photography can only help, but hands-on experience is the best training ground for the job.

Because many smaller, independent productions consolidate the DP and camera operator into a one-person role, it’s sometimes difficult to break into such a specific field. However, by doing the best with what you have (a camera, maybe an accessory or two) and gaining as much hands-on experience as possible (student films, YouTube shorts), it’s possible to have a good reel of work on your own.

Barry Sonnenfeld, the director of the “Men in Black” and “Addams Family” films, cut his teeth as a cameraman and then became a cinematographer, photographing the early Coen Brothers movies (as well as “Big” and “When Harry Met Sally”) before being called to the director’s chair. His successful career began simply because he was armed with his instrument: “When I got out of school, I felt that if I owned a camera, I could call myself a cameraman without being a dilettante.” Upon meeting Joel and Ethan Coen at an industry party, he heard about a script they had finished and said, “ ‘I own a camera.’ And [Joel] had said, ‘You’re hired.’ ”

For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!

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